Temple has opportunity in front of it, but devil is in the details

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Temple football coach Matt Rhule gives quarterback Frank Nutile a pat on the helmet.

To the untrained eye, the last play of a recent Temple football practice looked successful enough, a completed pass of 7 or 8 yards along the sideline.

However, Owls coach Matt Rhule clearly and immediately looked ticked off. When his team gathered around him, just off Diamond Street, Rhule used the phrase "grown men." As in, he needed to see more of them.

"Everything counts," Rhule said, repeating the phrase.

Walking over to the sideline, Rhule looked the picture of calm.

"My whole point, this was the first time we practiced when classes were going on," Rhule said. "I just felt like too many of the young guys, their minds were elsewhere. . . . I thought our veterans knew how to come out here and be prepared when school starts. But I expect them to make sure our young guys understand. We're 10 days away from our first game, and we're acting like we're a month away."

Did Temple's coach know showing up that morning he'd be looking to impart this little lecture before the kickoff Saturday afternoon against Penn State at Lincoln Financial Field?

"No," Rhule said. "Everything is based on what I see. To me, it's about a culture of, when we're here, we're going to compete every day, and I didn't think enough of those young guys competed."

Of that last play, "we turned the O-line loose," Rhule said. "It was just a miscommunication. . . . When we don't communicate, we have no chance to succeed. The first rule of Temple football, don't beat ourselves. We might have completed the ball, but we didn't get the first down because we didn't do our job."

That's football. Beyond the big plays and collisions, it's a game of little things the untrained eye often can't see when the first-down markers are invisible. Rhule talked about how they give everyone a job to do on every play, and if everyone does his job the play will work. This season, the Owls don't have a bowl game as a goal. It's an expectation. They were bowl-eligible last season, but there was no spot for them. This time, the team is more established and there are more guaranteed bowl spots for a school from the American Athletic Conference.

Fox Sports predicted which teams are going to play in which bowls. It had the Owls down for the Miami Beach Bowl. Even outside Temple's program, there are expectations beyond hopes.

"If our team suffers from not being good enough, then I'll take the heat for it," Rhule said. "If we fail, I'll take the hit. But I don't want them to suffer from low expectations. I want them to expect to compete for conference championships. We're not going to always win the conference championship, but we can at least be relevant. We can compete for it."

A friend called recently. He and a buddy had bought Temple's season package. He's not a Temple guy, and didn't buy the tickets to root for Penn State and Notre Dame. He hates them both. (He's a La Salle guy.)

This season, Temple has a rare showcase opportunity, since playing both Penn State and Notre Dame at home in a season is no small thing in this town.

"It shows people around here what big-time college football looks like and what we can have here," Rhule said, "and then if you go out there and beat one of those teams, it just opens up for so many people who aren't there with us day in and day out what the possibilities are."

Rhule added, "See, we know what the possibilities are here. We believe in it. But those are opportunities to show people what the possibilities are here at Temple. I think it's a chance to blow people's minds."

Temple has been to this stage before under its previous two coaches. In fact, the last time Penn State was in town to play Temple, the Owls had their chances. That day, the opposing coach was named Paterno. He walked off grumbling. The nicest thing JoePa could say about his own team: "I thought we hung in there."

The Nittany Lions survived that 2011 afternoon on two late interceptions, winning ugly, 14-10. Afterward, Temple coach Steve Addazio had it right when he said: "There's no moral victories. There's nothing . . . We lost. We could play anybody for that."

What's maybe different here in the long-term is that there isn't this automatic expectation that Rhule would parlay improvement into moving on. Surely, there are offers he wouldn't refuse, just as Al Golden wasn't going to turn down Miami. But maybe Rhule isn't going to automatically jump at the first viable offer, as Addazio did to Boston College. (Not that you can tear someone down for taking a higher-paying job in a Power 5 league.) Maybe it's not an expectation yet, but the hope for Temple fans would be that Rhule could grow something here and also stay to see where it takes the Owls.

It starts with getting the little things right, or you never get to any of that.

"I want to see a team that knows and does their job," the head coach said after he reached the sideline.

As for my La Salle friend, "I'm invested now. They're on the clock."


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus